Monday, August 20, 2007

Who Is The Mishna For?

I would like to share some thoughts I have had while preparing the first chapter of Mesekhet Pesachim for the class I was supposed to teach this year.

General Observations

The general topic of the first three mishnayot of Mesekhet Pesachim is bedikat chametz, searching for chametz. Let us consider the specific issues that are dealt with in each mishna:

First Mishna

1) When, 2) With what tool, 3) What places require bedika

4) Bedika of a wine cellar: a) kind of cellar, b) extent of bedika

Second Mishna

5) That we are not concerned that a weasel dragged chametz from a non-baduk place to a baduk place

Third Mishna

6) The requirement of Bedika beyond the time of biur

7) How to handle the chametz that remains after bedika

The Problem

When a student opens up to the first page of Mesekhet Pesachim he is confronted with a host of issues. I will try to present some of the issues he might grapple with - though perhaps never actually put into words. 1) This mesecheta begins with the topic of bedikat chametz. Why does Mesekhet Pesachim begin with this topic? 2) The Torah says nothing about doing bedika - why, then, is bedikat chametz required at all? 3) Are there books that I should have read before this Mesekhta? 4) How does bedika fit into the general system of Pesach? 5) Most of the topics (1-3 and 5-7) discussed in the first three mishnayot are very general principles of bedika or at least easily lend themselves to generalization; only one of them (4) seems to delve into a very specific issue. Is the goal of the mishna to teach general principles or deal with specific problematic cases? 6) Who is the Mishna's intended reader?

The Mishna does not provide us with any way of answering the above mentioned questions. As a book, the Mishna seems greatly lacking. How can this be? This question would not be as bothersome if we were talking about some other book; we would simply say that it is a poorly written book. However, the Mishna is considered the seminal work of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh! How could such a book be so lacking?

The Solution

The problem is with our assumption. The mishna is not a regular book. It was never meant as a complete presentation of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. Its purpose was to save Torah Sh'ba'al Peh from being forgotten. R' Yehuda HaNasi achieved this by providing the ba'alei mesora with a tool, not by writing a complete presentation. We should not expect comprehensiveness from such a book just as we would not expect comprehensiveness from a great professor's class notes. Let me explain:

Imagine a great professor - let us say, the greatest of his generation - of physics, mathematics, psychology, etc., faced with the following imaginary (though possible) scenario. After hundreds of years of professors teaching the subject to countless numbers of students the day comes - for whatever reason - that many students lose interest. Lecture halls that were once filled to capacity with hopeful graduate students lie mostly unused. Semesters pass without enough students to offer many of the graduate level classes. The would-be professors can not get the experience needed to become master-teachers. Even some elements of the field face the real possibility of being forgotten or misunderstood without the infusion of young talented minds.

This professor observes this dreadful situation and sets himself about the task of saving his beloved discipline from oblivion. He is fortunate because he still has colleagues who are masters of his field. What he decides his colleagues need are lecture notes covering every area of his field. With these notes his colleagues will have a resource with which they can guide their lectures, but more importantly they will have a way of checking that they have not omitted, in these lectures, any element necessary for a complete knowledge of their field.

As for sources, the great professor would use his own notes to form his compilation but would also make use of other master teachers' notes. If he possessed a copy of his own teacher's notes he would most likely make extensive use of them in the formulation of his compilation. The great professor would also be sure to include the major debates current in his field.

Of course, the great professor's compilation would find its main use in the hands of his colleague professors. Being a compilation of notes they are sketchy and incomplete by design - their intention being a guide for professors (this, of course, does not mean that the students would not get a copy, or at least have access to a copy). If a professor were to merely dictate these notes to a student - or if the students were to simply read the notes - very little would be understood. Teacher's notes serve as a guide for instruction not as the instruction itself. The job of teaching would still be in the hands of the professor.

This is, in effect, exactly what R' Yehuda HaNasi did. In another post I will complete this comparison using selections from Rambam's introduction to the Mishne Torah.

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